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Say's Phoebe

Sayornis saya ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Like other phoebes, the Say’s Phoebe is seemingly undaunted by people and often nests on buildings. These open-country birds have cinnamon-washed underparts and a rather gentle expression. They sally from low perches to snatch insects in midair or pounce on them on the ground. Say’s Phoebes often pump their tails while perched on a wire, fence post, or low bush. They breed farther north than any other flycatcher and are seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites.

Keys to identification Help

Flycatchers
Flycatchers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    This slender, long-tailed flycatcher appears large-headed for a bird of its size. The head often looks flat on top, but phoebes sometimes raise their head feathers into a small peak at the back.

  • Color Pattern

    Say’s Phoebes are pale brownish gray above with a cinnamon belly, a blackish tail, and a gray breast. Male and female are similar. The immature is similar to the adult, but browner and may have a buffy wingbar.

  • Behavior

    Like other phoebes, the Say’s Phoebe often wags or pumps its tail when perched, although not as frequently as Eastern and Black phoebes. When foraging, Say’s often perch around eye level on exposed twigs, jumping up to snatch a flying insect and returning to the same or a nearby perch.

  • Habitat

    Say’s Phoebes live in open country, sagebrush, badlands, dry barren foothills, canyons, and borders of deserts; they avoid forests. They often gravitate to buildings and aren’t closely tied to watercourses like other phoebes.

Range Map Help

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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Say's Phoebe

    Adult
    • Slender-bodied, medium-sized flycatcher
    • Dark brownish gray overall with buffy/cinnamon wash on belly
    • Long, flattened black bill
    • Long black tail
    • © Lois Manowitz, Lakeside Park, Tucson, Arizona, January 2011
  • Adult

    Say's Phoebe

    Adult
    • Larger and more slender-bodied than other phoebes
    • Brownish gray above with paler throat and breast
    • Rufous orange wash on lower belly
    • © Lois Manowitz, Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona, March 2010
  • Adult

    Say's Phoebe

    Adult
    • More elongated than other phoebes with longer wings and tail
    • Dull brownish gray above
    • Buffy orange wash on belly and flanks
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, September 2011
  • Adult

    Say's Phoebe

    Adult
    • Slender-bodied with long wings and tail
    • Dark brownish gray above
    • Black tail
    • Buffy orange flanks and belly
    • © Photosuze, Playa del Ray, California, October 2010

Similar Species

  • Female

    Vermilion Flycatcher

    Female
    • Whiter throat and chest
    • Wash on belly more of a rosy pink color than orangish
    • Faint streaking on breast
    • © Susan Voelker, Sweetwater Wetlands, Pima, Arizona, February 2017
  • Female

    Vermilion Flycatcher

    Female
    • Similar to Say's Phoebe but with paler, whitish throat and breast
    • Wash on belly more rosy pink, rather than orange
    • Faint streaking on breast
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, June 2009
  • Adult

    Eastern Phoebe

    Adult
    • Shorter-winged and stockier than Say's Phoebe
    • Pale whitish or slightly yellow belly with no pink or orange
    • Dark cap contrasts with paler gray nape and back
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Clear Creek, Texas, January 2010
  • Female

    Mountain Bluebird

    Female
    • Round head and body
    • Blueish tint on the wing and tail
    • Chest is brownish and lower belly is white (not cinnamon as on Say's Phoebe)
    • © Hawk Person, California, February 2012
  • Female

    Western Bluebird

    Female
    • Round head and body
    • Cinnamon wash on chest, not lower belly
    • Blueish tint on the wings and tail
    • © hawk person, Harvey Bear County Park, Gilroy, California, November 2015

Similar Species

Size and shape and plumage color might be the best clues to separate Say’s Phoebes from similar-sized flycatchers and small thrushes. Vermilion Flycatchers have shorter tails and rounder bodies compared to the long and slender Say’s Phoebe. Female Vermilion Flycatchers have a white throat and a pale chest with dusky streaks. The underside of the tail on Vermilion Flycatcher is pinkish-red while it is cinnamon on Say’s Phoebes. Eastern Phoebes occur in the east, although they do overlap with Say’s Phoebes in the central part of the United States, but Eastern Phoebes tend to nest in woodlands near water. Eastern Phoebe has a pale belly as opposed to the cinnamon-washed belly on Say’s Phoebe. Bluebirds with their round heads, shorter tails, and bigger bellies appear rounder overall compared to the Say’s Phoebe. Female Mountain Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds have a bluish tint to the wings and tail that Say’s Phoebes lack.

Backyard Tips

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our NestWatch pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size for a Say's Phoebe on All About Birdhouses.

Say’s Phoebes don’t come to feeders, but they may use your backyard as a place to catch insects or even build a nest under the eaves of your house or other structure in your yard. A well-placed shelf attached to a building may attract a pair. Learn more about where to place a nesting shelf and how to build one at NestWatch

Create bird friendly habitat in your yard by planting native shrubs. Creating habitat in your yard can provide foraging opportunities for the Say’s Phoebe. Learn more about creating habitat at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Say’s Phoebes really blend into their desert surroundings despite their cinnamon-washed bellies. They can be quite vocal at times which helps locate them, but at other times they are quiet and can easily go undetected. Listen for a clear, slurred whistle and a burry, hiccupping note. Keep your eyes low to the ground and watch for quick movements from low shrubs as they sally out to grab an insect or two. Look for them perched on top of low shrubs or fence posts. During the breeding season, they may be found around buildings; you may even be able to spot a nest under an eave.

Get Involved

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count and tell us how many species you see in your yard. Find out more at Great Backyard Bird Count.

Learn more about nesting habitats of Say’s Phoebes and participate in Project NestWatch.

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